Wednesday, August 16, 2006

ENV: Scottish Crossbills

Many of the leads i get on cool bird stories come from Jeremy Taylor's fine daily compilations . . . thanks Jeremy!

A Scottish accent gives away Britain's only indigenous bird
By Paul Kelbie, Independent Online Scotland Correspondent, Published: 16 August 2006


After years of research, one of the longest-running disputes in the ornithological world has finally been resolved - the Scottish crossbill is officially Britain's only endemic species of bird.

For more than 100 years, since the German taxonomist Ernest Hartert claimed in 1904 that the type of finch inhabiting Scotland's conifer woodlands was a sub-species of crossbill, the bird-watching world has been divided.

Although the British Ornithologists Union has classed the Scottish crossbill as a distinct species since 1980 many ornithologists, including those in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have hesitated to follow suit, as they believed there was not enough scientific research to prove it was different from other crossbills.

But after undertaking years of study into the habits and characteristics of the bird, which thrives in Scotland's conifer woodland, the RSPB has at last accepted that the Scottish crossbill is unique to Britain.

"This research proves that the UK is lucky enough to have a unique bird species that occurs here and nowhere else - and this is our only one. This is very significant," said Dr Ron Summers, RSPB Scotland's senior researcher, who led the study.

Three types of crossbill live in Scotland: the common crossbill, which has a small bill best suited to extracting seeds from the cones of spruces; the parrot crossbill, which has a large bill suited to extracting seeds from pine cones; and the Scottish crossbill which has an intermediate bill size used to extract seeds from several different conifers. All three are similar in size and plumage, and DNA tests have showed they are genetically similar.

However, in trying to discover exactly what features the birds use to identify each other, ornithologists at RSPB investigated the calls of the three types of crossbill, and found that Scottish crossbills have quite distinct flight and excitement calls from others.

The researchers found that, just like native Scots people, the birds have a distinct Scottish accent or call, thought to be the method used by the birds to make sure they only attract mates of the same species.

During a long-term field study in the Highlands the RSPB scientists were able to confirm that the birds mate with those with a similar bill size and call. They also found that young Scottish crossbills inherit their bill sizes from their parents - an important piece of evidence confirming the status as a distinct species.

"The question of whether the Scottish crossbill is a distinct species, and therefore endemic to the UK, has vexed the ornithological world for many years," said Dr Summers. "Now that we have shown the Scottish crossbill exists and is endemic we must focus our conservation efforts in making sure it not only survives, but flourishes and that Scotland has plenty of the habitat that supports and maintains the population."

After years of research, one of the longest-running disputes in the ornithological world has finally been resolved - the Scottish crossbill is officially Britain's only endemic species of bird.

For more than 100 years, since the German taxonomist Ernest Hartert claimed in 1904 that the type of finch inhabiting Scotland's conifer woodlands was a sub-species of crossbill, the bird-watching world has been divided.

Although the British Ornithologists Union has classed the Scottish crossbill as a distinct species since 1980 many ornithologists, including those in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have hesitated to follow suit, as they believed there was not enough scientific research to prove it was different from other crossbills.

But after undertaking years of study into the habits and characteristics of the bird, which thrives in Scotland's conifer woodland, the RSPB has at last accepted that the Scottish crossbill is unique to Britain.

"This research proves that the UK is lucky enough to have a unique bird species that occurs here and nowhere else - and this is our only one. This is very significant," said Dr Ron Summers, RSPB Scotland's senior researcher, who led the study.

Three types of crossbill live in Scotland: the common crossbill, which has a small bill best suited to extracting seeds from the cones of spruces; the parrot crossbill, which has a large bill suited to extracting seeds from pine cones; and the Scottish crossbill which has an intermediate bill size used to extract seeds from several different conifers. All three are similar in size and plumage, and DNA tests have showed they are genetically similar.
However, in trying to discover exactly what features the birds use to identify each other, ornithologists at RSPB investigated the calls of the three types of crossbill, and found that Scottish crossbills have quite distinct flight and excitement calls from others.

The researchers found that, just like native Scots people, the birds have a distinct Scottish accent or call, thought to be the method used by the birds to make sure they only attract mates of the same species.

During a long-term field study in the Highlands the RSPB scientists were able to confirm that the birds mate with those with a similar bill size and call. They also found that young Scottish crossbills inherit their bill sizes from their parents - an important piece of evidence confirming the status as a distinct species.

"The question of whether the Scottish crossbill is a distinct species, and therefore endemic to the UK, has vexed the ornithological world for many years," said Dr Summers. "Now that we have shown the Scottish crossbill exists and is endemic we must focus our conservation efforts in making sure it not only survives, but flourishes and that Scotland has plenty of the habitat that supports and maintains the population."

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